Face to Face Q & A with Jana Matusz

Older woman holding a painting.Photo by Kris Snibbe, Copyright of the President and Fellows of Harvard College

Jana Matusz has been drawing and painting in museums since she was a child, first on Saturdays at the Carnegie museums growing up in Pittsburgh, and more recently at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The taxidermy animals in the museum are favorites of visitors; the endearing Lion cub, the noble Turquoise-fronted Amazon parrot, the regal Gray Wolf, the mischievous Moonrat, the remarkable Coelacanth, the playful Warthog.

To Jana, they are her friends. On Saturdays, when she sets up for her volunteer work at the Museum, the creatures beckon to her.

Jana Matusz graduated from the Harvard Visual & Environmental Studies program in 1978, and in 1990 with an MFA in painting from MassArt, and is a long-time art educator. We sat down with her to explore her artistic journey that led to her newest exhibit, Face to Face: Portraits of Museum Animals by Jana Matusz.

When did you become active sketching and painting museum animals?

I had been sketching in the galleries for many years on my own. In 2011 I asked Carol Carlson, the Volunteer Program Coordinator, if I could invite museum visitors to draw by providing them with sketching materials. Thus, began the Sketching Facilitator volunteer position. Many other volunteers are also Sketching Facilitators now.

The specimens at the Harvard Museum of Natural History were special for me. I had admired and drawn them in my undergraduate years. The animals and birds were ideal drawing subjects. They spoke to me. They had personality. They held still!

Although I love drawing in general, I knew that painting would be a more powerful way to honor the animals, to pay hommage to them. As a plein air landscape painter, I paint on-site, never from photographs. The immediacy of painting from direct observation is critical. That is true for the animals too. I asked for permission to paint in the museum, and painted these animals on-site, in early morning sessions before the museum opened.

Did you know which specimens you would paint, based on your many years as sketching facilitator?

Coming in every Saturday to facilitate sketching in the galleries was a sort of a warm-up. I would go into the galleries and see who invited me to draw them that day. I think that there are many ways of being invited to draw something. Sometimes it’s ‘I feel like doing a whole animal, or I feel like doing a portrait. Sometimes it is more about ‘I really want to do something colorful today, let’s find someone so I can use my colored pencils.’ Or sometimes it is about having no idea what an animal is, and taking a real look at it, which is exactly what I’m encouraging people to do when they come to sketch.

Do you feel like you’ve given them personality by painting them?

They already have personality, individuality, and even attitude sometime. Some of that is due to who they are, and some of that is due to the skillful artists who did the original taxidermy. A tilt of the head, or a raised paw can make all the difference. Of course, there may be a little of me in each of the paintings. Everything you paint is part of yourself in some way. It is a collaboration.

Do you think that when the animals are at eye level it creates a relationship between them and the visitors?

Yes, you can feel their presence, even though the glass is there. It is possible to get very close to them – one can appreciate their size, and notice details about their fur, teeth, and claws. It’s hard to do that with living creatures in a zoo, or on video.

Where did you grow up, and what museums were you exposed to?

Beginning in 4th grade through high school I spent every Saturday taking art classes at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute. Many years later coming to the Harvard Museum on a Saturday seems very natural.

Did you have any animals growing up?

No. Mom said six kids were enough animals in the house! One of the first things I did when I was on my own was to have a cat. I like both dogs and cats, but cats have been an important presence in my life.

When you went into the VES program, were you focused mainly on painting?

The program, headed by Louis J. Bakanowsky, provided a broad exposure to all the visual arts: I focused on painting. In the many years since Harvard, I have explored various styles and subject matter, but always appreciated the education I received at Harvard. When I painted trucks and construction equipment at the Big Dig, I definitely felt the influence of my painting professor Flora Natapoff, who painted cityscapes and trains. William P. Reimann taught drawing, and gave me the confidence to tackle anything, from front loaders to those warthog tusks.

Why should visitors consider drawing at the museum?

Any museum can be overwhelming. Even the most amazing creatures can be easy to overlook. If you have the time to slow down and look at something carefully, it helps you appreciate more, and that goes for everything. You get out your sketchpad and you create a memory, an impression and experience that you will take with you. I especially enjoy Saturdays because that’s when parents are bringing their children. It’s wonderful to see the parents interacting with their children, drawing with them, telling stories about animals they saw during their travels.

Are adults more inclined to do artwork with their children than if they came alone, or don’t know how to draw?

Probably yes, but you’d be surprised. Adults have told me ‘wow, that’s a great idea’ even if they haven’t drawn for a while. Some are reluctant and say they can’t draw. To them I say, ‘it’s not about the product, it’s about the process.’ Just by taking the time and looking, no matter how it turns out, you will have learned something new and noticed things. Are the ears behind, in front, or below the horns? If you have to draw it you figure that out.

Did you consciously try to present the spirit of the animals in the Face to Face portraits?

Yes, I wanted to make them look noble and dignified. I very consciously chose a point of view, sometimes using a mirror, which would present them from below. Sometimes I used additional lighting to strengthen the light source. I allowed myself a lot of creative license with the backgrounds.

The only non-mammal, non-bird specimen is the Coelacanth?

He’s one of my favorites. It’s an amazing story. These fish were thought to be extinct and were known only through the fossil record. It turned out that they still exist! It was like finding a live dinosaur in your backyard. Of course, I was going to do the coelacanth.

For the coelacanth painting, I included some of the blue coloration and the star pattern which is on the actual fish in the wild. I also used a scuba diving light that I put on top of the display (very carefully) for a more dramatic impression.

Do you consider yourself instrumental in conservation efforts to the public at large? Is that your motivation?

People ask me, ‘are you drawing these like a scientist or an artist’? You’ve added a third one, ‘are you working within the politics of conservation’? On some level all of that is in there. Each of these creatures is a miracle. I come to them as an artist. My paintings are hommages to these beautiful creatures that are still here to educate and inspire us. If I can get other people to notice and appreciate them, that’s wonderful.